Monday, November 16, 2009

Report on U.S. household food insecurity and hunger expected today

The federal government's annual report on U.S. household food insecurity and hunger is expected to be published today at noon. The new statistics will estimate hardship in 2008, based on a national survey last December, which asked respondents about their experience in the preceding 12 months.

The report will be posted to the front page of USDA's Economic Research Service.

I have two suggestions for media coverage of this report today: (1) report the contrast between the official estimates and national objectives for hunger reduction, which were adopted during the 1990s, and (2) report the simple percentage of U.S. survey respondents who experienced hunger, based on a straightforward and eloquent single survey question found in the appendix to the annual report.

Taking cues from the report itself, press coverage in past years has focused on small year-to-year changes in the prevalence of household food insecurity. For example, last year's report showed that 11.1% of households were food insecure in 2007, up an insignificant 0.2 percentage points from the year before.

I hope today's press coverage focuses on a more meaningful contrast: each year's official estimate of food security has fallen further behind the planned improvements that the United States adopted in the 1990s as national objectives for 2010. The national objective in the Rome Declaration, and the Healthy People 2010 plan, was to reduce food insecurity by half. When the new report is published today, we can add another data point to the chart below.

The failure to reduce food insecurity in the United States provides an interesting backdrop to the new Rome food security summit in news reports today.

It is sometimes said that the federal government no longer reports an official measure of "hunger." Beginning with the 2005 report, the federal government changed the name of the classification formerly known as "food insecurity with hunger," and now labels this category "very low food security."

However, I have always appreciated the question in the annual survey, which asks whether the survey respondent was hungry but didn't eat because he or she couldn't afford food. In recent years, this statistic has been reported in appendix Table A-1 of the annual report. In contrast with many of the complex statistics cited in the academic literature on food security measurement, this simple hunger count speaks most clearly about the prevalence of hunger in America. In 2007, the respondent reported such hunger in 3.3% of U.S. households.

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